The Best Music of 2012

This year has produced a selection of truly brilliant albums. I’ve reviewed my favourites for the year, and there’s something here for everyone. Every day between now and the end of the year, there’s going to be a new review here of one of my favourite records.

The album titles are affiliate links to Amazon, so if you like the sound of one of these, please support the artist by buying a copy, and I’ll get a small cut. You can also find almost all of these on iTunes. I won’t get a cut, but you’ll be buying some good music.

Silver Age — Bob Mould

Bob Mould, the legendary Hüsker Dü and Sugar frontman, released his ninth studio record this year at the age of 51, and he’s still rocking harder than people half his age. Silver Age is packed with the honest, simple, and down-to-earth music you expect from a trio.

Silver Age was recorded with Jason Narducy on bass and backup vocals, and Jon Wurster on drums. Both of these musicians contribute significantly to the stripped-down sound on this album. It’s clear that it’s the raw essentials.

But don’t think that it’s a light and cuddly record by any means — this is Bob Mould. The guitars are loud and fierce, and the lyrics are piercing. “Never too old to contain my rage,” spits Mould on the album-titled song. Indeed, he may be over 50, but this is the most raw and direct Mould has been since — dare I say? — his Hüsker Dü days. I love this album.

Kindred EP — Burial

You’d think that with just three tracks and the initialism “EP” in the title that this would be a short jaunt. Ah, but this is Burial, so it’s a good half-hour of music. The title track opener sets the tone, and it’s aptly named: Burial’s signature vocal samples over beats. It sounds like much of 2010’s Untrue, if the entire record were condensed into an eleven-minute concentrate.

As apt as “Kindred” is named, so bluntly is “Loner”. It’s probably the most club-oriented track by Mr. Bevan. Its tempo is brisk, with each first and third beats delivered in steady thumps. There’s a driving arpeggiated synth melody that flutters overtop, but don’t think it’s lost any of the cold, solemn feeling that you’d expect from a Burial track. It belongs in the nightclub confined to your head.

The album closer, “Ashtray Wasp”, is perhaps the best thing Burial has created. It echoes the synth stylings from “Loner” at the beginning, but using an almost-ephemeral flute, with a sampled vocal pleading “I want you”. As the track passes through desperation, it morphs into a darker, more visceral experience, becoming disturbingly sparse in the last four minutes or so of the 11:45 piece.

This is the soundtrack for two o’clock in the morning, when you’re awake and staring through your window at a streetlight illuminating nothing. It’s properly haunting.

Instrumental Mixtape Two — Clams Casino

The surprise hit of last year is back with fuzzy charm and sampled density. “Palace”, the album opener, is the instrumental beat from Clams Casino’s production of A$AP Rocky’s track of the same name. It’s heavy, and it’s enormous. I can’t overstate how huge this track is.

The rest of the album continues the style established by Clams Casino’s release last year, only a little darker. Every sample seems to slither its way through the layers without ever staying still. Take “The Fall” for example, with its bird samples and male vocals colliding, without either taking precedence. “Amor Fati” impossibly winds itself forwards and backwards at the same time. Nothing stays still. Everything is moving.

That is until you hit “Kissing on My Syrup”, which jolts you back into the real world with its microsecond-precise 4/4 beat. It’s what breaks up the latter half of the album, cutting through like a sharp hit of lime in a gin and tonic.

The album closer, “I’m God”, is the mellowing of what you’ve just encountered. It’s just as layered and just as fuzzy, but it’s less dense. The sampled vocal aptly encourages “deep breaths”, and that’s what I’ll take before running through the album again, and again.

Koi No Yokan — Deftones

The dudes in Deftones — never The Deftones — haven’t got Chi Cheng back from his harrowing four years of hospitalization and recovery, but they’ve released two records in that time with temporary replacement bassist Sergio Vega. Despite his contributions only to Yokan and 2010’s Diamond Eyes, he’s managed to help craft a record that combines the best parts of the previous studio record with the classic White Pony from 2000.

Yokan begins with the stomping two-and-a-half-minute “Swerve City” which, judging by the videos on YouTube, is quite the crowd pleaser. A Deftones record hasn’t hit this hard from the start since, yes, “Back to School” on Pony, but “Swerve City” is more immediate and visceral. It gives way to “Romantic Dreams”, “Leathers”, and “Poltergeist” — three of the most textured, sweeping songs in the Deftones songbook. They’re loud in all the right ways, but there’s a sensitivity to the distortion and Chino Moreno’s screams.

Track seven, “Tempest”, is the most recent single from the album. It’s as radio-friendly as the record ever gets, but don’t think that it’s weak sauce. The pre-chorus uses a tasteful amount of delay to create a distant “run run run run, ahead ahead ahead ahead” effect. It’s beautiful, preceding “turning in circles, been caught in a stasis,” as Moreno pleads in a Thrice-esque chorus.

In amongst all of the chaos on the record — the loud guitars, the screamed vocals, the hard-hitting drums, and the wicked bass work — there’s a sense of every song being absolutely exquisite, and completely essential.

Total Breakdown: Hidden Transmissions From The MPC Era, 1992-1996 — DJ Shadow

If you, as I, have spent many a lonely evening staring out on a darkened city, you’ll recognize the value of DJ Shadow’s records. Don’t be fooled by Shadow’s (real name Josh Davis) opening track, “Vee in Detroit”. Just because there’s a funky synth bass sample to kick this record off, that doesn’t mean that the rest of it isn’t for the night.

And, indeed, by the time the sixth track (“Intensely Hitting”) rolls around, this record has settled into the lonely, desolate, and mysterious samples you know and love. Except this wasn’t the mood DJ Shadow knew or loved, because these tracks were all created before he released Endtroducing… in 1996. In many ways, it shows that Shadow hadn’t settled into the role of a mashup artist extraordinaire yet. These are all prototypes and working drafts of a format he would later perfect. They’re great nevertheless. A thoroughly enjoyable album.

End of Daze — Dum Dum Girls

Last year’s Only in Dreams LP was the record when I began to hear the sound of the Dum Dum Girls mature and concentrate. The hit single from that record — if there was one — was “Coming Down”, which I first heard while taking a train through the rain at one o’clock on a September morning. Dum Dum Girls have had a special place in my heart ever since.

This year’s EP is no less powerful. The garage sound is both sensitive and powerful at the same time, best exemplified by lead single “Lord Knows”. Lead vocalist Dee Dee laments the hurt she’s caused, but there’s a defiance to her pleading.

This EP is more atmospheric than previous Dum Dum Girls albums, and moreso even than you’d expect from any garage rock album. There’s space for contemplation and understanding, and it’s wonderful. My only complaint is that it isn’t a full-length, but I’ll settle for this tight five-song EP while I wait for their next LP.

Channel Orange — Frank Ocean

Between Frank Ocean and The Weeknd (more on him later), this decade is shaping up to be a golden age resurgence of R&B. Last year’s mixtape from the OFWGKTA member was just a teaser of how smart Ocean writes his lyrics, and I immediately wanted more. His debut LP doesn’t disappoint.

The album kicks off with lead single “Thinkin Bout You”, which sets the tone and theme of the record: Ocean dislikes random romantic antics, yet he explores them; he ultimately wants a meal, but he’ll have some tapas in the meantime. It’s an introspective take on R&B which gives it an honesty and a relatable quality that is so attractive.

On “Sweet Life”, Ocean opens with the delightful lyric “the best song wasn’t the single, but you weren’t either”. There’s so much to get lost to in that line. “You’ve had a landscaper and a housekeeper since you were born,” he laments in the chorus. Again, an interesting take on the genre: he isn’t coming from money, but he aspires to that status.

There are a bunch of incredible tracks in the first half — “Sierra Leone”, “Pilot Jones”, and “Crack Rock” — but I’m going to skip to the jewel of the record, “Pyramids”. Who’s heard of a ten minute long R&B track before? (Okay, Prince’s “Purple Rain” is, like, nine minutes long.) It’s an opera of a song, with bluesy guitar parts (thanks to John Mayer) and jazzy saxophones nestled between club-ready synths and a heavy funk beat. There are a lot of ideas in the lyrics of this one track, but it’s largely built around the broken fantasy world of the relationship between pimp, prostitute, and “client”. It’s Los Angeles at two in the morning: miserable and mysterious, appalling or alluring (or both, depending on your particular leanings). This is undoubtably one of the best songs of the year.

Just when you’re brought into the deepest emotional depths of the album so far, Ocean hits back with the tropical “Lost”, and brief jazzy saunter of “White”, the latter with more fretwork from Mayer. But this album isn’t easy by any means, and listeners are reminded of this with the solemn “Bad Religion”. Much has been made of this song, owing to Ocean’s coming out earlier this year. But it’s powerful purely because of the simplicity and honesty of its lyrics, but because of the same, it’s not an easy song to listen to. But it’s worth it. Nobody tells stories through music like this any more.

‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! — Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Ten years after their last record together, the collective is back with the massive sonic experience you’ve come to expect from Godspeed. Their previous effort, Yanqui U.X.O., remains their most difficult in their catalogue, largely because it’s just so damn slow. On ‘Allelujah!, they’ve assembled two tracks of roughly twenty minutes’ length, shuffled between two of less than ten. This makes for a much improved pace.

“Mladic”, the album opener, is as massive as you’d expect. It’s symphonic, with a few individual movements that shape it over its length. The build takes over six minutes, but the rewards are satisfying as only that kind of delay can make them. After a frantic middle quarter, there’s a delightful feedback-driven segment, which makes way for a Junkanoo-sounding outro, without horns.

“Their Helicopters’ Sing” (yes, with the apostrophe) is the shortest track on the record and, with detuned bagpipes galore, it had better be. It’s hard to listen to. The droning sounds in the background are sheared by the aforementioned bagpipes. It’s good. It’s painful, too.

That’s okay — the guys in Godspeed are thoughtful enough to follow it with another symphonic guitar-and-drums piece, “We Drift Like Worried Fire”. For me, this is the highlight of the record. The methodical, metronomic guitar work is complemented by the swirling violin that slices through the broadness of the sound. This piece sounds distinctly more story-driven than “Mladic”, the other lengthy piece on the record. There are (obviously) no lyrics, but there are clear sections which point to aspects of a plot.

The album closer, “Strung Like Lights at Thee Printemps Erable”, echoes “Helicopters'” in its tempo and droning quality, but it’s more textured than the latter. There’s depth to this track, especially as the final song. After a solid minute of feedback and noise, it calms to end in what sounds like bells at the end of a massive tunnel. It’s a subtle reminder that this record was the product of a breakup of the band, and many years of searching for their significance, relevance, and meaning. It’s a reminder that they might take ten years to make their next album, so listen to this one and cherish it.

Visions — Grimes

What can I say about Grimes (Claire Boucher) that hasn’t already been said? The 24 year-old released her third record this year, and it has been universally praised as an incredible accomplishment. It’s textured and nuanced, but bold enough for you to take notice. Her voice is absolutely sublime, providing an excellent contrast against the kickin’ beats.

The record kicks off with the requisite intro track for contemporary albums, but jumps right into “Genesis”. It’s a sparkling, meandering exploration of electronica. It’s truly danceable, but it’s also quite listenable. (That description fits much of the record, though — enough to tap your toes to, but not aggressively so.) Boucher treats her voice with substantial amounts of reverb, enhancing its already ethereal quality. But the beats stay dry. It’s a sharp contrast, and particularly noticeable in the rightfully-acclaimed “Oblivion”.

“Vowels = Space and Time” is reminiscent of every 1980s pop song you’ve ever heard, but in the best of ways. It’s ABBA-esque, without becoming grating as so many ABBA songs do. It’s funky, but still somewhat restrained. It’s innocent, but fleetingly seductive.

Just a few songs from the end is the often-overlooked “Symphonia IX”. I’ve rarely heard it outside of my frequent play-throughs of the entire record, but it’s absolutely excellent. It’s part of a selection of songs this year — Four Tet’s “Pyramid” and Burial’s “Loner” being two other examples — which have noticeable dub overtones and influence, but have managed to tame what is often an unwieldy genre. It’s very listenable, and there’s delicacy to it.

Visions closes with “Christmas Song”, featuring her brother rapping over Grimes’ music. It’s an odd way to finish the album, because it doesn’t quite feel like it belongs. But that’s okay — Boucher likes to think of her music as “A.D.D. music”, and it fits that idea. Perhaps it also hints at further explorations of that mix of genres in the future. Which, mind you, would be a long way off, because Visions already sounds like it’s from the future. It’s sublime.

Held — Holy Other

Of their 2012 offerings, Clubroot’s is dark and meandering, Burial’s is lonesome and distant, and Four Tet’s is heavy and precise. Holy Other’s Held is every one of these descriptions in one, but incredibly, it isn’t a mess.

The rhythm section lays below about three feet of fuzz and grime, in a manner similar to Clams Casino’s production style. It’s a vinyl record, replicated digitally (though I was given the LP as a gift this year). But it isn’t all heavy. The reverse sampled vocals over these dark, brooding, and noisy beats offer a sense of delicacy and balance.

The cover art’s photo of sheets in dappled sunlight relay the intimacy that the album frequently reveals through these light and dark contrasts. True, Holy Other borrows tricks from Burial quite heavily, but he does so in a softer, fuzzier, out-of-focus manner. It’s undeniably trendy, but it’s also undeniably one of the year’s best.

Honourable Mentions

  • R.I.P. by Actress. There are so many good tracks on here, but this record feels overlong. It’s pleasing at its best, and frustrating at its worst, but the latter only creeps in after the first ten tracks or so.
  • (III) by Crystal Castles. I was slightly disappointed when this record was not also called “Crystal Castles”, like the two before it. But, where the two that preceded it felt like continuations of each other, this feels like a departure. Half of the tracks on this record are mixed so they sound like you’re listening to them through the outside wall of a club. The other half sound like you’re pressing your ear against the speaker.
  • III – MMXII by Clubroot. Dark, deep, and tense. Truly a record for night owls. A soundtrack to a programmer’s working hours, or a hacking scene in a spy movie.
  • Pink by Four Tet. All of the tracks on this record, save for “Lion” and “Peace for Earth”, have been released prior. That doesn’t mean “Pyramid” gets any less good, though.
  • The Glorious Dead by The Heavy. Modern funk done right. Not a hell of a lot different than 2009’s The House That Dirt Built, but this is the most fun jammed into a 2012 album.
  • An Omen by How to Destroy Angels. The non-Nine Inch Nails-side-project of Trent Reznor, with Atticus Ross and Mariqueen Maandig. Their debut EP had overtones of NIN with female vocals. This EP sounds like a conscious effort to move away from that. “Ice Age” and “The Loop Closes” are highlights, but the latter leaves me longing for more Nails, pronto.
  • Crime by Night Committee. I was saddened by the breakup of Hot Little Rocket, but Night Committee (comprised of half of Rocket, plus an organist/keyboardist) is a great followup act. Jangly distorted guitars, rolling drums, and rock organs. Excellent.
  • Sleeper by Seams. This EP starts with the promising “The Glow”, but tapers slightly with the next two tracks. The six minute closer more than makes up for those, however. Polyrhythmic synths abound.
  • King Animal by Soundgarden. Over fifteen years later, Soundgarden returns with new content that sounds like they never left, which carries implications both good and bad. Good, but not comparable to their greatest work.
  • Trilogy by The Weeknd. I’ve already praised the sexiest three albums of 2011. This year’s re-release contains a few new tracks, and all the rest have been remastered. Does it hold up? Absolutely. A modern classic.
  • Coexist by The xx. Quieter than their breakout debut record. It’s a nice twist, but I can’t help but mourn the loss of some of the tension of their last effort.
  • XXYYXX by XXYYXX. Highlights include the album opener “About You”, and the midpoint “DMT”. Perhaps the most relaxed album of 2012.